I have just completed an online “morality test” which is run by the BBC’s LabUK science site.
I am not going to talk, for now, about the detailed methodology of the test, although anyone else who wants to take part might get a truer result if they click on the link above now, before continuing to read this post. I might come back to this when those results are published next year. I am also not going to deal in this post with the theory which the test is investigating – Human Superorganism Theory – which deserves rather more time than I have available in this post, but which I do want to look into in more detail.
A fundamental assumption within the “test” troubled me, however. The focus of a large number of the questions was designed to establish how “angry” or “disgusted” I was by certain hypothetical scenarios, by reference in part to how “wrong” I thought they were. It seemed to me that the attempt to draw any conclusions from the correlation between these measures was predicated on an assumption that “morality” requires a reaction – specifically a powerful negative reaction – for its function.
That seemed “wrong” to me (although, please note, it neither angered nor disgusted me). If morality means anything at all, it is something that is at least to some extent divorced from basic, visceral, reaction. Leaving aside those of us who do not subscribe to Darwinian evolutionary theory, I think it can broadly be taken as a given that the natural state of the human animal is self-interest.
As such, a burglar who is imprisoned for an excessively long sentence because his burglary took place during a period of general rioting might be angered by the result out of all proportion to its empirical “wrong-ness”. Similarly, a person whose childhood or formative experiences have caused them to have an unusually high level of concern about microbial infection might be disgusted to discover animal faeces in a public park, out of all proportion with the extent to which society at large might regard fouling of public spaces by pets as morally wrong.
Equally, coming to moral judgments based on anger or disgust seems to be to create a barrier to addressing the problems that are being considered. However angry I might personally be about bankers excessive bonuses in a time of general austerity, my anger is not going to change the situation one bit. My disgust at such selfishness and greed might improve sales of camping equipment at Milletts (other camping stores are available) but it is highly unlikely to result in a change of policy at Goldman Sachs etc. If they take the diametrically opposite moral view to me, our collective anger and disgust is simply going to drive us further from one another, and from a solution.
No, it seems to me that what this world requires is a little less of a knee-jerk emotional reaction to the undoubted problems which it faces, and instead a morality which seeks to do rather more to understand and engage with those whose behaviour transgresses our moral boundaries. That at least offers the possibility of some sort of rational negotiation between parts of our society which, at the moment, seem to regard themselves as in intractable opposition. Surely that is the “right” way through our current turmoil?